DRIVING MISS JUDY OUT WEST
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These are personal experiences in the summer of 2012. I have included a few statements for levity's sake. Do not forget to pack a sense of humor and pull it out many times a day.
My wife and I wanted to do something different for a vacation this year. One of the neighbors had been repeatedly regaling us with stories of trips to National Parks in Alaska and the western U.S.: The animals, the mountains, and scenery were so different from the northeastern U.S.
On a whim, I went to Google Maps and started with the northern route to Yellowstone National Park, south to Carlsbad Caverns, east to Dallas, and then northeast back to Connecticut. I had been in a lot of these states for short business meetings or social visits, but never drove great distances through them. I had driven to Florida and back several times by different routes, so I knew (or thought I knew) about long distance drives.
After talking to long haul truckers about developing the right driving attitude, I added my own little quirks. To me the essential ingredients are XM radio, music CDs, cruise control, air conditioning, GPS, planned hotel/motel stays, a few must see destinations, the flexibility of adding more stops, appropriate road food, a large PlayMate cooler, freezable cooler packs, and a basic curiosity about what one is seeing. In this way there are short term goals and ways to prevent boredom without zoning out. Do not start the trip without getting the car checked out. You will be driving about 6000 miles. You might have no cell phone service or no internet for checking directions. Know how to use your GPS. Know how to change a tire. Do not expect to get off the Interstate and drive through small towns or rural roads. Check Google for how few roads there are in some places. You might not see another car for several hours at a time. Carry water and food. Do prepare for temperature extremes. During the first 8 days, the temperature hit 100o at sometime. Some nights were in the 50s.
Get a lifetime senior pass (if you are old enough) for $10 at the first National Park you visit. This is good for yourself , a friend, and vehicle for entrance at all National Parks. This saved a lot money. It does not cover parking ($11) at Mount Rushmore.
In deciding on where to stay the first parameter is how far are you comfortable driving every day? How early can you start? How late can you go? Do you have problems in the dark, in the rain, in cities? How long will you spend at various stops? I set reasonable distances and looked for motels/hotels in that vicinity. I favor one particular chain where I have a loyalty card. When I made the reservation with a particular credit card, I got points. When I paid with the same card, I got more points. I got points with the hotel for every stay, and a $50 gift card for every two stays. This chain includes a free, full hot breakfast with waffles, eggs, sausage (sometimes sausage gravy and biscuits) yogurt, danish, donuts, bagels, dry cereal, milk, coffee, tea, toast, and fruit at most places. With a huge breakfast, lunch was just a quick snack, and dinner was close to the hotel.
The first day was old territory (New York, Pennsylvania) with nothing new and exciting. Things did not change much until we crossed Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and into Iowa. This is where flat was invented, marketed, and shipped around the world. The first item of note was how dry the ground was. Corn fields had strips of green where the water was, and strips of dry standing plants were the water wasn’t. The locals told us that the corn was passed the point where rain would fill out the ears. The corn had tasseled, but the yield would be extremely low. They could plow it under or grind it for silage, but it was too late to plant anything else.
We had crossed many streams, creeks, and rivers and noticed very low water. It was not until we crossed the Mississippi River and later the Missouri River that we realized how low the water actually was. There were extensive dry areas with vegetation down the banks almost into the water. Feeder streams were almost dry. Others had extensive gravel bars with heavy vegetation. Crossing Iowa almost to Omaha, Nebraska and then north into South Dakota, the dry situation was getting worse. Irrigation saved some fields.
South Dakota was the beginning of very interesting topography. This is where a background in geology is very useful. You can see the extremely flat grasslands, distant mountains, erosional channels, gradual alluvial deposition, and bedding planes. A great tourist attraction is the 1880s town (http://www.1880town.com/) in Murdo. Dances with Wolves movie props, reconstructed buildings, horses, donkeys, camel, longhorn cattle, antiques, a saloon with no alcohol, but a great piano player.
Val Kilmer's Car from Thuderheart
All of a sudden I began to visualize Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea crossing the country. The must have had a huge mental adjustment from the crowded, forested, populated, urbane, sophisticated East with easy travel by horseback and boat to the vast flat grasslands with occasional watercourses with barely enough water to fill canteens. At this point they can also see the mountains in the distance. How far away are those mountains? Can they go around? Are there easy passes? Is that really snow on the tops are just light colored rock exposed by erosion? Maybe we should have gone down the Mississippi and gone west through Texas?
Crossing the Badlands of South Dakota toward the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore was quite an experience. Miles of flat will hills in the distance and extreme erosional channels with hardly a drop of water and almost no vegetation. I began to wonder how people today could live in such a barren region. Their cultural cocoon allowed them to dig wells, set up generators, etc, etc, etc., but the barrenness seemed depressing. I talked to a lot of people about this and now I understand why they like it. After a week in the desert, grassland, prairie, and areas of scant vegetation for other reasons, I felt claustrophobic coming into east Texas and north with all the trees. I could not see anything for all the trees in the way.
Mount Rushmore looks just like the pictures of it, but the pictures do not show the context or the route to get there. It is an amazing natural rock formation. I stared at it for amount 20 minutes before I began to actually see why people think they see four old white dudes in the rock.
Going from Mount Rushmore to Gillette, Wyoming gave us a hint of what was to come. When planning a route into territory where you have not been, Google shows the road, but turn on terrain to see the topography. Mountains are not always in the distance or to the sides. Sometimes you have to actually drive over them. This was also when we realized the huge distances between things. A hundred miles to the next town is not bad at 75 miles per hour. Drive a hundred miles and the only indication of other human life is an Indian Casino and three gas pumps. Devils Tower north of I-90 in Moorcroft, Wyoming, is a huge igneous formation raising above the prairie. This was featured in the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This was the case going through Bighorn National Forest to Cody, Wyoming. The road was good with a lot of places to turn off to take pictures. This was the first realization that getting a wagon over this mountain would be very difficult unless you carefully scouted a route.
We drove through Yellowstone National Park from the North Entrance and then through Grand Teton National Park to Jackson. Wyoming. Yellowstone has a lot of hot springs and smaller geysers with less reliable times of spouting than Old Faithful. Some are visible from the road, but others you have to walk to. If you want to see animals, go at the right time (very early morning or near dusk). We did not know this. This year was very hot and dry and animals stayed out of the sun and waited for cooler times. We saw a few antelope on a hill side in Yellowstone. We passed the huge elk grazing areas with no elk. It was not until we got out the parks that we saw two bison in a field with cows. Right down the road were two nesting bald eagles. I have seen more bison and bald eagles in Connecticut.
All of the amenities of home including the home air conditioner
The drive through Jackson, Wyoming (a very touristy town) to Idaho Falls through the very steep, winding, and beautiful Teton Pass is about 100 miles (nearly 2 hours). According to the desk clerk at the hotel in Idaho Falls, people from Jackson come about once a month to stock up at Costco.
The route through Idaho to Salt Lake City passed potato fields was flat and seeming well watered. We drove through Salt Lake City passed the Mormon Temple and around the town before heading toward Colorado. On I-70 Judy spotted a sign for Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. We decided to go. Of course, as is typical of National Parks, they never tell you how far they are from the highway. This one is 27 miles from the highway (65 MPH), then 22 miles (25 MPH) into the park, and a 1 mile walk to where you see the arch. You have to return to the Interstate by exactly the same route. Of course there are a lot of the other formations and sights in this park. This added 100 miles getting us into Montrose, Colorado, in the dark in a driving rain.
Driving south from Montrose, Colorado took us through the San Juan National Forest, mountains, and a historic mining area. We were obviously heading to lower elevations, flatter ground, and drier areas.
We did not take one of the train and mine tours. But it is on the list for the next time.
The only bear we saw was crossing the road south of Durango, Colorado. There was no obvious reason for it to be there. No running water, no waterfalls, no grazing land, no berries. We have had bears within a hundred yards of our backyard at home. We took a slight detour through Albuquerque, New Mexico. The downtown was completely asleep on a Saturday afternoon. The convention area had no open restaurants and only a few people on the street. We headed into the periphery to find a southwestern restaurant. The GPS gave us only chain restaurants so I stopped at hotel for a recommendation. The place was only a mile away and was great.
Roswell, New Mexico is a nice place with an alien theme. A must-go tourist attraction is the International UFO Museum and Research Center. They have exhibits detailing the original reports, investigations, cover-ups, explanations, theories, sightings, and close encounters of not only the Roswell Incident, but of many others around the world. Leaving Roswell for Carlsbad Caverns I had the definite feeling I had been probed. After re-arranging the wallet in my back pocket, I lost the cause, but not the symptoms.
Carlsbad Caverns must be experienced if you have never been a large cave. If you have been in a solution cavity cave, this has so much larger and grander formations. If you stay until dusk, the bats (roughly a million) exist the cave in a huge swarm. On the road from the caverns to the main highway, stop in White's City, a series of gift shops, a small store for snacks, motels, and a good restaurant.
Somewhere in the drive across west Texas to east Texas, one starts to see real vegetation. The desert cactus and scrub disappears and real grass and trees appear. I should have marked the spot, because that was a big change. We had to go to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (JFK Museum) at the old Texas School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy. The museum is very well done with graphic, audio, and video depictions leading up to and including the assassination, the investigation, the conclusions, and many other theories contradicting the conclusions of the Warren Commission. The corner of the building where Oswald sat to make the shots has been recreated, and you can stand almost looking over his shoulder. Repeated shots from here can be done without much re-adjustment because it is a straightaway to the underpass. A shooter on the grassy knoll would have a much more difficult time re-adjusting a target moving side-ways and not in a direct line.
Driving from Dallas to Arkansas and then Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and home was just driving through familiar terrain with hills, trees, and more traffic than I had seen since leaving home. Traveling with most trucks in the Midwest and West, I learned their habits and could predict their behavior. Car drivers are far more unpredictable. They swerve out from between two trucks when I do not even know they are there.
I should have scheduled more time for Bardstown, Kentucky, the Bourbon Capital of the World with many distilleries giving tours and tastings. The west had the most interesting terrain. At first I was bored because I did not see the nuances. I had always found the jungle more interesting because things were always happening. Stop, stare, and listen and you will know something is going on. The same is true of the desert, but it is more subtle. You have to tune into different things.